The Real Story: “40 Acres And A Mule”

For those of you who are familiar and know to what this term, “40 Acres And A Mule” refers, perhaps you would appreciate a more in depth insight of the specifics surrounding this once radical social movement and political shit-storm that took hold during Lincoln’s Presidency. Likewise, for those of you who are not familiar with the concept of reparations being paid to African Americans, maybe this highly accurate and historical factual account will assist you in your understanding.

NOTE: The use of the term in this document, “Mainstream American”, refers not only to White Americans rather the melting pot of cultures that make-up the Majority however, mostly White.

I was recently involved in a thread concerning slavery and who should or should not be paid reparations. What I quickly surmised while reading the many remarks associated with the thread was that most people had very little knowledge of Mainstream American History and even less about African American History. The old saying, “If people don’t know they will make it up” was never more apparent than in this thread. People actually got mad over their own lack of knowledge about the factual history behind the “40 Acre And A Mule”duly enacted and presidentially signed law that was struck down after Lincoln’s assassination.


The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule’

Some of this article represents the works of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

We’ve all heard the story of the “40 acres and a mule” promise to former slaves. It’s a staple of black history lessons, and it’s the name of Spike Lee’s film company. The promise was the first systematic attempt to provide a form of reparations to newly freed slaves, and it was astonishingly radical for its time, proto-socialist in its implications. In fact, such a policy would be radical in any country today: the federal government’s massive confiscation of private property — some 400,000 acres — formerly owned by Confederate land owners, and its methodical redistribution to former black slaves. What most of us haven’t heard is that the idea really was generated by black leaders themselves.

It is difficult to stress adequately how revolutionary this idea was: As the historian Eric Foner puts it in his book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, “Here in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, the prospect beckoned of a transformation of Southern society more radical even than the end of slavery.” Try to imagine how profoundly different the history of race relations in the United States would have been had this policy been implemented and enforced; had the former slaves actually had access to the ownership of land, of property; if they had had a chance to be self-sufficient economically, to build, accrue and pass on wealth. After all, one of the principal promises of America was the possibility of average people being able to own land, and all that such ownership entailed. As we know all too well, this promise was not to be realized for the overwhelming majority of the nation’s former slaves, who numbered about 3.9 million.

What Exactly Was Promised?

General William Tecumseh Sherman in May 1865.

We have been taught in school that the source of the policy of “40 acres and a mule” was Union General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order №15, issued on Jan. 16, 1865. (That account is half-right: Sherman prescribed the 40 acres in that Order, but not the mule. The mule would come later.) But what many accounts leave out is that this idea for massive land redistribution actually was the result of a discussion that Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton held four days before Sherman issued the Order, with 20 leaders of the black community in Savannah, Ga., where Sherman was headquartered following his famous March to the Sea. The meeting was unprecedented in American history.

General William Tecumseh Sherman in May 1865. Portrait by Mathew Brady.

Today, we commonly use the phrase “40 acres and a mule,” but few of us have read the Order itself. Three of its parts are relevant here. Section one bears repeating in full: “The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns river, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes [sic] now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”

Section two specifies that these new communities, moreover, would be governed entirely by black people themselves: ” … on the islands, and in the settlements hereafter to be established, no white person whatever, unless military officers and soldiers detailed for duty, will be permitted to reside; and the sole and exclusive management of affairs will be left to the freed people themselves … By the laws of war, and orders of the President of the United States, the negro [sic] is free and must be dealt with as such.”

Finally, section three specifies the allocation of land: ” … each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.”

With this Order, 400,000 acres of land — “a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. John’s River in Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland thirty miles in from the coast,” as Barton Myers reports — would be redistributed to the newly freed slaves. The extent of this Order and its larger implications are mind-boggling, actually.

Who Came Up With the Idea?

Here’s how this radical proposal — which must have completely blown the minds of the rebel Confederates — actually came about. The abolitionists Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens and other Radical Republicans had been actively advocating land redistribution “to break the back of Southern slaveholders’ power,” as Myers observed. But Sherman’s plan only took shape after the meeting that he and Stanton held with those black ministers, at 8:00 p.m., Jan. 12, on the second floor of Charles Green’s mansion on Savannah’s Macon Street. In its broadest strokes, “40 acres and a mule” was their idea.

Stanton, aware of the great historical significance of the meeting, presented Henry Ward Beecher (Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous brother) a verbatim transcript of the discussion, which Beecher read to his congregation at New York’s Plymouth Church and which the New York Daily Tribune printed in full in its Feb. 13, 1865, edition. Stanton told Beecher that “for the first time in the history of this nation, the representatives of the government had gone to these poor debased people to ask them what they wanted for themselves.” Stanton had suggested to Sherman that they gather “the leaders of the local Negro community” and ask them something no one else had apparently thought to ask: “What do you want for your own people” following the war? And what they wanted astonishes us even today.

Who were these 20 thoughtful leaders who exhibited such foresight? They were all ministers, mostly Baptist and Methodist. Most curious of all to me is that 11 of the 20 had been born free in slave states, of which 10 had lived as free men in the Confederacy during the course of the Civil War. (The other one, a man named James Lynch, was born free in Maryland, a slave state, and had only moved to the South two years before.) The other nine ministers had been slaves in the South who became “contraband,” and hence free, only because of the Emancipation Proclamation, when Union forces liberated them.

Their chosen leader and spokesman was a Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier, aged 67, who had been born in Granville, N.C., and was a slave until 1857, “when he purchased freedom for himself and wife for $1000 in gold and silver,” as the New York Daily Tribune reported. Rev. Frazier had been “in the ministry for thirty-five years,” and it was he who bore the responsibility of answering the 12 questions that Sherman and Stanton put to the group. The stakes for the future of the Negro people were high.

And Frazier and his brothers did not disappoint. What did they tell Sherman and Stanton that the Negro most wanted? Land! “The way we can best take care of ourselves,” Rev. Frazier began his answer to the crucial third question, “is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor … and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare … We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.” And when asked next where the freed slaves “would rather live — whether scattered among the whites or in colonies by themselves,” without missing a beat, Brother Frazier (as the transcript calls him) replied that “I would prefer to live by ourselves, for there is a prejudice against us in the South that will take years to get over … ” When polled individually around the table, all but one — James Lynch, 26, the man who had moved south from Baltimore — said that they agreed with Frazier. Four days later, Sherman issued Special Field Order №15, after President Lincoln approved it.

What Became of the Land That Was Promised?

The response to the Order was immediate. When the transcript of the meeting was reprinted in the black publication Christian Recorder, an editorial note intoned that “From this it will be seen that the colored people down South are not so dumb as many suppose them to be,” reflecting North-South, slave-free black class tensions that continued well into the modern civil rights movement. The effect throughout the South was electric: As Eric Foner explains, “the freedmen hastened to take advantage of the Order.” Baptist minister Ulysses L. Houston, one of the group that had met with Sherman, led 1,000 blacks to Skidaway Island, Ga., where they established a self-governing community with Houston as the “black governor.” And by June, “40,000 freedmen had been settled on 400,000 acres of ‘Sherman Land.’ ” By the way, Sherman later ordered that the army could lend the new settlers mules; hence the phrase, “40 acres and a mule.”

And what happened to this astonishingly visionary program, which would have fundamentally altered the course of American race relations? Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor and a sympathizer with the South, overturned the Order in the fall of 1865, and, as Barton Myers sadly concludes, “returned the land along the

South Carolina, Georgia and Florida coasts to the planters who had originally owned it” — to the very people who had declared war on the United States of America.

After extensive research, I found the above related depiction to be the most accurate and applicable. I believe that any culture or race of people residing here in the West and having been “Exploited by the West” should be paid reparations for those exploits. Notice the operative term “Exploited by the West”. The precedent has already been cemented with the Indian Treaties and Reservations. Much is to be learned by their dealings over the past few hundred years. However, in this instance, dealing with multi-cultural and racial remuneration, is quite clear. Everyone benefitted as well as everyone was harmed at one point or another during the development of Western Civilization; principally the US. It’s true that these accounts of slavery occurred rampantly in just about all races at the hands of every culture while under the very protection of the US Government in whatever governmental structure at the time.

Nevertheless, it must be noted that Black Enslavement endured more than all of the other enslavements combined; From 1691 to 1865 years. Beyond that, Jim Crow Era and Segregation up until the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

These are historical and well documented facts!

Not only did White on Black slavery outlast and endure every other enslavement of every single culture and race in the West, rather the permanent and lingering damage to the Black Underserved community’s psyche, culture, health, diet, infighting, and other dreadful social and financial maladies still plague the Black community until this very day.

Not only should the above point of view be duly noted but rather the OPPOSING view, as best I’ve discerned it, should be stated clearly as well:

Most Mainstream Americans from the inception of slavery until today culturally harnessed, refined, cultivated, ingrained, passed on from one generation to the next and became concretized in the belief that Blacks were inferior, should have lesser rights to live, prosper, procreate, congregate, demonstrate, earn, promote, lead and the list is infinite compared to Mainstream America’s interpretation of the Bill Of Rights or The Constitution Of The United States.

Now most of you reading this, who happens to be Mainstream Americans, will probably echo that you don’t have a racist bone in your body and you would be absolutely correct. This lack of empathy, understanding and the profound allowance to witness Blacks murdered by police and by others and somehow find justification is DEFINITELY NOT RACISM; IT’S TRADITION. And it’s not your fault either. It took many centuries, generations and iterations of understanding to develop within the Mainstream American Culture these characteristics. No one really wants to witness someone else’s cultural and racial destruction. Akin to terroristic acts of violence on American soil since the early 90’s, people simply became numb to this activity and now accepts it as a part of what comes next for our nation. Same with slavery and the consequences borne from this 450 year prolonged systematic annihilation of an entire race. This assessment is not about you White or Mainstream America! However, it should be and for it not being about Mainstream America creates endless vacuums filled with hatred towards Blacks and visa versa as well as inequalities that are deemed acceptable by many as a matter of tradition and not racism. We call everything racism these days but one only has to look at the historically accurate events that got us all in this debacle in the first place and one could quickly rule out racism.

My uncle, Dr. Joseph Lowery (Wife Evelyn Gibson-Lowery — my paternal aunt — who recently died) is one of the African American culture’s greatest orators, leaders and visionaries and have been promoting equality amongst the cultures since and before he was in Dr. Martin Luther King’s Inner Circle of Leadership and Wisdom and actually laid the groundwork through his, The Joseph & Evelyn Lowery Institute for a better understanding of how to combat inequality and injustice. My family is steeped in valued history and understanding of the plight that plagues us all. Please take a look at the work done on this topic over the past 70 years or so.

Now many people of color and chances are many Mainstream Americans will not want to accept what I am about to write however, here’s the truth: “Sometimes I look at my own race and say what the F — -k.” The behavior of how the vast majority of us treat one another, our communities and most other cultures is appalling at times and especially when we are all bottled up in a jungle-like environment affectionately known from coast to coast as “The Hood”. That being said, from now on when you see aggressive behavior, loud vexation as a norm, poorly educated representation or rampant poverty, crime and degradation, please keep in mind that the way Mainstream America (Not all of you but most) see and treat Black people took centuries for you to psychologize and accept that somehow this treatment, either “Black on Black” or “Mainstream on Black” or “Black on Mainstream” is justifiable and humane and you put us there!

What most people don’t know is that during the “Reconstruction Period” that followed the Civil War and prior to the “Emancipation Proclamation” that the US Government, under President Lincoln enacted laws (The were not struck down after Lincoln was assassinated) that paid White Slave Owners beyond $300 per slave freed and further & additional compensation for loss of labor, land recuperation, reconstruction and the list is endless. Millions of slaves were freed and they didn’t get one dime from the US Government; even prisoners get $20 released from prison. However, not one Black Freed Person received a single penny. Not Ever!

Some would argue that Sharecropping (Invented by Freedmen) was the answer to land distribution however there were never any laws enacted surrounding Sharecropping; just a few government policies which were temporary and aimed at keeping the White Landowner from going in to ruin (Modern Day Bankruptcy). However, Sharecropping never really panned out for Blacks because as a solution across the board (Sharecropping was successful ONLY in isolated instances) because the overwhelming consensus among the White land owners was that of “Switch & Bait” or “Shanty Town Mathematics”. The custom was simple: The White land owner would lend their hoe, plow, mule, tools, etc. and at the end of every harvest this practice would leave the Sharecropper (Freedman) owing more than the value of the harvested crops (Deeply in debt) to the White land owners and the vicious cycle of slavery pretty much continued however, this time the work would be recorded and the wages and compensations would be denied for decades arguing that the rental for tools and supplies greatly outweighed the value of the harvests.

Everyone else has been paid in cash and in blood many times over for their part in Slavery with the noted exception of the slaves themselves.

Killing the intended payees or having them arrested and detained was a common practice to get rid of them instead of paying them for a hard day’s work. Among Business leaders and Slave Owners, it did not matter if the victims were Black, Indian, Chinese or White. However, once Slavery officially ended, the former Slave Owners re-invented another practice to compensate their losses. This practice was as old as the Slave Trade itself and was refined by the Dutch in what is now known as South Africa today and adopted by the British, Irish and the Italians: “Racism”. The European Aristocrats and the New World Elite knew that once slavery ended they needed a way to mass the people to do their will. It was too many poor for them to get free labor and too many of the poor were White. So Racism was initiated throughout the globe to keep the Black inferior and the Whites united. People already thought of Blacks as animals for the hundreds of years of slavery so Racism was an easy stretch for most and could be passed down from generation to generation.

Not only was racism legally and easily instituted among the White race, it also ran rampant throughout the Black race (Within the US) as well.

Oh yes! Even up until the 1960’s organizations existed like “The Blue Vein Society” that discriminated among Blacks between Blacks exclusively. If you could see the green veins in a person’s arm or leg or any visible part of the body they were admitted. If not, no entry. This replaced the “House Nigger” and the “Field Nigger” concepts. These organizations existed everywhere and to some extent still affect many African Americans today.

For the first 300 or so years of slavery, Blacks were never considered more than chattel or property. Pigs and cows had more rights and in many circumstances better food and lodging.

Not until the 20th century did the Blacks become considered, by well documented US law, 3/5ths of a person. Blacks were prohibited from learning, socializing, supporting one another and having real communities until well after the Civil War. Even though the North principally recognized Blacks as Free Men and Land Owners during a large part of our US Black Enslavement Program, the North was still a part of the US. Everyone is responsible for any enslavement in the West. Keep in mind that every culture with the exception of Blacks were afforded education, 5/5ths (the whole) of their humanity, land ownership, prosperity, liberty, pursuit of happiness, life and freedom of movement and the list is endless while absolutely nothing was afforded to Blacks by law during this almost endless timeframe.

One would think that if an entire race was opted out of humanity by another race(s), against their will, for 450 years while at the same time spouting equality and “All Men Are Created Equal” creeds that the oppressing culture, be they current, past or passive, would realize that the only affects of that cultural and racial exclusion would be damaging to all parties concerned and the whole of the United States. This is what we are enduring today; Anarchy and total acceptance of their destruction by Mainstream America.

No one is implying that the Black Lives Matter Movement is wrong or right on these matters however, the historical data supports reparations but the social dilemma for Mainstream Americans is that they feel and truly believe that they would be footing the bill for their fellow countrymen’s errors of centuries ago if reparations were ever paid. This makes sense too. This is a complicated issue which will plague our country for many centuries if we don’t repair these problems today! The remedy is 450 years overdue and will only get worse. Public Aid and other Government subsidies to poorer Americans are not the solutions either. Hell, there are “Currently” infinitely more Mainstream Americans on Welfare than Blacks or any other culture combined. This is a matter of fact. I believe that I have a few solutions that would push the US in to the right direction and appease just about everyone at the same time however, I will probably reveal them in my upcoming articles and not in this forum.

This national crisis of ours is by far a tinderbox ready for ignition. However, knowing the FACTS will not only help ease tensions but also grant proponents and opponents an even playing field from which to launch and support their grievances.

“The old saying, “That if people don’t know they will make it up” was never more apparent.”

Michael Gibson

Former US Special Forces “Green Beret”, Entrepreneur, World Traveller, Mentor & Writer

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